DA’s office first in U.S. to create human trafficking unit

January 19, 2019

EDINBURG — The Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office will soon become the first in the nation with a human trafficking unit dedicated to prosecuting cases of forced labor in the agricultural sector.

The new unit is set to begin operation early this year and is the result of a grant from the Buffett-McCain Institute Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery, which is funded by the Arizona State University Foundation.

“It’s not that Texas has any worse of a problem than any other state that has agriculture, but it is one place where there are plenty of groups that have already been focusing on this in one way or another, so it was a good place for us to start assigning grants on the NGO side and the government side,” said Gonzalo Martinez de Vedia, the initiative’s program manager.

The Initiative to Combat Modern Slavery launched a pilot program in 74 Texas counties in 2017. Focused on forced and coerced labor among farmworkers, the Hidalgo County DA’s office was selected for the grant because it is the only one that has successfully prosecuted a labor trafficking case using the state’s penal code.

The case, which involved a Central American woman who was held against her will at a home in Alamo, resulted in a 2017 guilty conviction against the man who forced her to work as a domestic servant.

When those in the legal and law enforcement communities discuss human trafficking, they most often are referring to sex trafficking — a crime that has made headlines across the state. And when prosecutors at both the state and federal levels do come across cases of labor trafficking, they are frequently tried as wage theft or harboring illegal aliens cases.

“I think it would be news to a lot of prosecutors that there’s a distinct crime in the Texas Penal Code that involves labor trafficking,” Martinez de Vedia said. Other factors the institute considered when making the selection included the size of the county’s farmworker population and the high number of wage and hour violation cases investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor.

While it’s difficult to measure the exact number of farmworkers in counties nationwide, the initiative cites 2012 data that puts the figure around 6,400 locally.

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